Ethnofiction is a term that is used to provide a new contemporary sound to an older terminology (neologism) particularly dealing with docufiction (a term coined from the combination of the words documentary and fiction film). In visual anthropology, ethnofiction refers to ethnography or the genre of writings which gives an elucidating study or point of view regarding human societies. Predominantly, the results of the holistic research method are presented by ethnography and can be used in ethnofiction.
In addition to this, ethnofiction also consists of both formal and historical connections.
A lot of cultural anthropologists and ethnologists are using ethnofiction in their works and consider it as the essence of discipline. Jean Rouch, the most renowned ethnologists, specifically considered as the “father of ethnofiction” was able to understand and discover that in making events which are registered by the camera. Consequently, the camera in this scenario or scene becomes a participant. Due to practice, research and documentaries are lavished with the idea of using cameras.
This is in accordance to Rouch’s aim of furthering his goals, objectives and introduction of the actor as a tool in the film or in Rouch’s research. According to Brian Quist, through Jean Rouch “a new genre (of filmmaking) was born”. Jean Rouch is an innovative French director who definitely fathered the movement called cinema-verite. Jean Rouch’s style of filmmaking is a spontaneous one that blurred between or consists of educational, ethnographic and fiction film. Rouch filmed in many West African countries where he was able to train and support actors, cameramen, technicians and directors.
One of his apprentices was Safi Faye. The African filmmakers that Jean Rouch promoted did not in the end become avant-garde cinema-verite directors, largely because they could not afford to take ten or twenty hours of rushes to produce a 45-minute feature, but he may have had an effect in other ways. When he set out to produce history he adopted a version of ethnographic realism. In 1975 he filmed a story situated in the late 19th century, “Babatou” , “les trios conseils”, with a crew of technicians from Niger and on the basis of a script written by the historian Boubou Hama.
Following his work habits, he developed only minimally the dialogue, which the actors fleshed out by improvisation on location. The team travelled around to find a suitable location. The problem was to find places that had not changed in a hundred years, without corrugated metal roofs or plastic containers. Without further safeguards this solution is illusory, because the sun-baked clay houses of the savannah rarely survive one hundred years and what appears old now may be an environment radically transformed during the colonial period.
Jean Rouch’s search still reveals more concern for historical authenticity, compared to the shortcuts that Kabore takes, but is inspired by the same supposition that in Africa the actual looks like the historical once you remove from it what is ostensibly European origin (Bickford-Smith and Mendelsohn 20). Jean Rouch’s aesthetic is guided by the effort to produce ethnographic estrangement. Rouch celebrated film “Les Maitres fous” (1955), filmed in Ghana among migrant workers from Niger who undergo a possession ritual, is very much a display of radical difference, even if recorded with humor and respect.
As such, it goes very much against the grain of how most West African intellectuals would like to see their cultural heritage presented to outsiders, the main reason, I think, why many of them do not like Rouch’s films. West African films look different and show the culture in a different way. There are statelier in rhythm and style and less adventurous in form. They also present their characters as likeable and not wild. “Cinema-verite” is translated as “Film truth” in French. Cinema-verite is as style of filmmaking that uses the camera as a protagonist, as a catalyst for action (Kahn 185).
In addition to this, it is derived from Dziga Vertov’s “Kino-pravda” a documentary film series in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, wherein it was important that the film audience realized it was watching a film, not reality. The term was coined by Jean Rouch together with the help of Edgar Morin while making “Chronique d’un ete” (1961) with newly developed, portable cameras and Nagra sound recorders. In this film interview, subjects of Rouch and Morin get to watch and comment on footage of themselves.
The term “cinema-verite” also implies that the filmmakers try to avoid manipulating documentary truth, but it has often been confused with “Direct Cinema” which is a movement which emphasized “objectivity” over “reflexivity of cinema-verite”. The term “verite” is used in Hollywood to denote a style of shooting to achieve the effects of veracity and immediacy or the jerky, hand-held camera and grainy out-of-focus texture (Barnard et al. 377). In the early 1960s, technical advances made it possible for small crews to produce synchronous-sound location films.
The equipment encouraged some filmmakers to record actions and events as detached observers, naively assuming that they were not significantly influencing the actions being followed. The so-called American direct cinema of Richard Leacock, Robert Drew, the Maysles brothers (Albert and David), and the others helped to define this kind of documentary. Eventually, it led to what is known today as observational-style film, which became so attractive for some ethnographic filmmakers (Ruby 12).
Jean Rouch on the other hand, having founded the cinema-verite, obviously adopts the opposite approach unlike the previously mentioned ethnographers of filmmakers. Jean Rouch aim in cinema-verite is to have the subjects reveal their culture. The use of the camera as a character in the films he made was due to the fact that he felt that the presence of the camera could provoke a cine trance for his subjects. In “Chronicle of a Summer” (1961), the filmmakers combined the ideas they have borrowed from Flaherty with those of Soviet film theorist and practitioner Dziga Vertov.
Rouch brought the cameras and his filmmaking style into Paris streets for impromptu encounters in which the filmmaking process was often a part of the film, with filmmakers and equipment in frame. Consequently, the actions of Jean Rouch and his works lead to an immediate notice or significant influence to the films of French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Chris marker, whose film “Le Foli Mai” is a direct response to “Chronicle of a Summer”.
Rouch’s influence in the United States was not immediate unlike that of the France because so few of his films were accessible (Ruby 12). Rouch has persistently continued with his style and to develop his collaborative approach over a forty-year period in a number of films made with West Africans. Some criticized certain early efforts, Such as “Les Maitres Fous” (1955), as ethnocentric because of an assumed overemphasis on the bizarre, but others celebrated it as definitive surrealist film (Ruby 5).
However, his intentions was to produce a “shared anthropology” in which those in front of the camera shared the power with the director. This idea reached an apex with his so-called ethnographic science fiction films, such as “Petit a Petit” (1968), “Cocorico”, “Monsieur Poulet” (1983) and “Madame l’Eau” (1992). Rouch is not alone in France in his adventurous experiments in collaboration. In 1964, George Rouqier produced a film about a year in life on a farm as lived by his relatives.
In his film, the subjects were asked to enact their lives which is kind of ethnodocudrama. Although it was screened at the 1947 Venice Film Festival as a French form of neorealism, it has been virtually ignored by the United States anthropologists. Jean Rouch is also not alone when it comes to his interests in pushing the limits of documentary realism. For example, the United States anthropologist Robert Ascher experimented with drawing directly on film to produce a “cameraless” interpretation of a myth which is considered to be a technique found in experimental art films.
As with Rouch, his efforts have been ignored. Stoller contends that Jean Rouch is a premature postmodernist. However, it should be considered that Rouch’s work in multivocality and reflexivity has been ignored by the so-called crisis of representation and writing culture folks. Their lack of understanding of Rouch’s many contributions to the postmodern debates that have obsessed anthropology in recent years perhaps the best example of how marginalized ethnographic film is to the mainstream of cultural anthropology.
Other anthropologists who disagree with Rouch’s filmmaking style and contributions simply do not see his work as contributing to their interests (Ruby 13). From his works and style in enthnofiction, as observed in his “Chronicle of a Summer”, a certain concept of ethnofiction can be identified. However, before reaching that fruitful conclusion or concept, Jean Rouch had to perform several tests or experiments in filmmaking, particularly exploring the subject matter or aspects of ethnofiction. Based from his works and experiments, five characteristics can be deduced.
First, is the “thorough ethnographical research” (Quist 9) which can be observed in his films such as “Les maitres fous” and Batille Sur Le Grand Fleuve”. Second, ethnofiction consists of “truthful circumstances and accurate documentation” (Quiest 9). Third, ethnofiction “utilizes the cinema’s need for story as well as dramatic curve” (Quiest 9) which can be observed in Jean Rouch films such as “The Lion Hunters”. Fourth is the characteristic, on Rouch’s term, “cine-trance” which have been previously mentioned or discussed.
Commonly, “cine-trance” is referred to as “improvisation”. The fifth characteristic of ethnofiction, and probably the most important part of the films and considerations of Jean Rouch is “participant reaction” which can be observed in “Chronicle of a Summer” (Quist 9). After the establishment of the five characteristics of ethnofiction, there was a need for Jean Rouch to develop a single film that would encompass all these five characteristics of ethnofiction. Jean Rouch pursued an ethnofiction film that would incorporate all these characteristics.
The film noted in Quist analysis is “Jaguar” which was completed and released in 1967. This film became the classic example for ethnofiction film because it encompassed or included all the five characteristics of ethnofiction perfectly. This comprehensive ethnofiction film instantly gained fame and became renowned not only in Africa but also to film festivals worldwide (Quist 10). Jean Rouch’s perseverance however does not stop at the success of “Jaguar”. He continued honing his skills until the five characteristics of ethnofiction became very familiar with him and his films.
He continuously endeavoured in order to improve the cinema-verite which he and Morison founded. He also continued making films to influence other filmmakers and to introduce different or varieties of culture from the point of view of its subjects. Jean Rouch’s perseverance, efforts and success are really remarkable that he definitely lives to the expectations of those who look up to him. His influences and his contributions to the filmmaking industry really justifies Jean Rouch as “father of ethnofiction”.
Barnard, Tim, Timothy Barnard, and Peter Rist. South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994. USA: First University of Texas Press Printing, 1996. Bickford-Smith, Vivian, and Richard Mendelsohn. Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen. UK: James Currey Ltd, 2007. Kahn, Hillary E. Seeing and Being Seen: The Q’eqchi’ Maya of Livingston, Guatemala, and Beyond. USA: The University of Texas Press, 2006. Quist, Brian. “Jean Rouch and the Genesis of Ethnofiction. ” Long Island University. Ruby, Jay. Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film and Anthropology. USA: The University of Chicago, 2000.